“Oh, my God! Look. At. Her. Butt! It’s, like, so big!”
I’m telling my age a bit with this one but, Dear Heart, you can take it as gospel that no such words were very uttered about Yours Truly. Truly. And, yes, if you haven’t figured it out yet, I am, “Like. So. Black.” I’ve always accepted that I come from a long line of flat butts and that’s just the way it’s going to be. I mean, I do squats. I lift heavy. But still, nothing’s happening back there. I’m blaming genetics. But is that the whole story? I haven’t been in the fitness game for long, but I’m learning some new concepts and I’m interested in seeing if I can do some intentional work on the ol’ badonka donk.
Just so you know: Biology is definitely a source to consider when it comes to what your body can do AND what it can look like. We do have to be realistic in our expectations. That being said, faint not, diligent workers, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel for us yet!
Enter the concept of altered reciprocal inhibition as it relates to muscle imbalance. Not to get all technical and talk your ear off about basic exercise science, but
this is a noteworthy concept. Noteworthy because our bodies are amazing machines and also because I’ve been loading up the squat rack for quite some time and baby still ain’t got back.
Muscle imbalance is just what it sounds like; improper variations in the lengths of muscles surrounding a joint. Ideally, opposing muscles complement one other and work together in kind of an equal but opposite fashion. In the case of reciprocal inhibition, the agonist, or muscle that brings about the desired movement, contracts and the antagonist, the muscle that counteracts the agonist, simultaneously relaxes for movement to take place.
For example, if I am going into a squat movement my agonists are my gluteus maximus and my quads. These are the muscles that will allow me to move concentrically into hip extension. In layman’s terms, my agonists are involved in movement associated with the weight I’m actually lifting. My glutes and quads should, ideally, be running the show as I rise out of my squat into the upright position. In contrast, my hip flexors, are busily working to slow hip extension and stabilize the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex.
Now, when muscles are imbalanced, compensation occurs and movement is altered. This is called altered reciprocal inhibition. So let’s say I go down into my squat movement, but my hip flexors are tight, my body, determined machine that it is, will try its best to complete the movement. So, I may make up for weak muscles or a limited range of motion by leaning forward or arching my lower back. Both these movement compensations will alter my posture and decrease gluteal neural drive. In other words, my butt’s not doing what it’s supposed to do. Those muscles are not firing as they should and they become elongated and under-used. Meanwhile, my overused muscles, the hip flexors in this example, become shortened. Essentially, my squat work ain’t doing diddly-squat.
So what can we do about it? We identify the faulty mechanism and work out the kinks. I’ve been using overly simplified examples just for explanation’s sake here, but there are a number of muscles groups involved in the squat and a number of issues that could be preventing one from appropriately completing the movement. I happen to know myself quite well and I know that I have tight calves from years of wearing improper shoes (i.e. high heels) when on my feet for several hours of the day. And, my tight hip flexors are mainly the result of pattern overload associated with running. Both of these areas of weakness are getting in the way of fully engaging my glutes.
So what’s next?
I have a plan. I hope you’ll stick around for the process and see if I can get some of the desired results. I’m letting up on the heavy squats for a bit until I can work out some of these movement compensations. For six weeks I’m focusing on correcting my limited flexibility and getting my movement to a more optimal state.
Here’s my plan:
- Begin and end each workout or run with proper warmups and cool downs. I know this should be more of a priority and when I’m actually at the gym I’m more likely to follow through with this plan. But, if I’m running from home and it’s 0-dark-thirty, I roll out of bed and go. Then once I’m home, the girls bombard me and pulling out the foam roller is basically a useless activity.
- Attend or complete a yoga class at least once per week. Last year, I did a great job of adding yoga to my routine and it really helped. This form of training is complementary to distance running but I traditionally start, stop, repeat. This time, I’m sticking with it. Hold me accountable!
- Include hip flexor stretches daily!
- Give the squat rack a rest and introduce different modes of training for my lower body. I’m super excited about this! I’ll fill you in in the next post.
There. My brilliant plan all laid out. Let’s get it going and see what happens next!
So, what about you? Are you working out and not getting desired results? What do you think is going wrong?
Let’s talk about it,